Get Dirty and Get Healthy: A HealthCentral Explainer
Need another reason not to feel so bad about letting your kids get dirty every now and again? A new study out of Northwestern University found that young children who are exposed to higher levels of microbes may be less likely to develop chronic inflammation as adults.
Why is this important?
First, let’s talk about what causes inflammation. About one-third of adults in the United States have chronically elevated C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a marker for inflammation produced by the liver and is associated with plaque build-up in blood vessel walls. This plaque build-up in coronary arteries leads to narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can cause chest pain. If these arteries rupture, you may be dealing with a heart attack or stroke.
What does CRP have to do with germs?
When you have an infection, your white blood cells rally to fight it by producing a number of proteins, some of which stimulate the liver to produce CRP--hence an elevated CRP level. The CRP level in blood has been used for many years to evaluate the level of inflammation or infection in the body. When CRP is frequently produced to protect us from infections, we do have a higher chance of developing chronic diseases. However, new research shows that in countries where infectious diseases are more prevalent, such as the Ecuadorian Amazon, there was not one case of chronic low-grade inflammation among adults.
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How do you find out your CRP levels
Finding out your CRP levels requires only a simple, inexpensive blood test and the results are categorized as low (<1), intermediate (1-3), and high (3 or greater). You should avoid getting your CRP tested when you have an infection or cold (your levels will definitely be high), and you don’t need to get your levels tested often (they generally remain stable for a few years).
Should you be concerned about an elevated CRP level?
An elevated CRP level only means something if you’re already at risk for a particular chronic disease, like cardiovascular disease. For instance, if you’re a healthy individual with low cholesterol levels but a high CRP level, it’s questionable whether you should start taking statins (the drug of choice to lower CRP levels). Also, risk factors such as age, smoking, and obesity will also contribute to higher CRP levels without necessarily indicating risk for another disease.
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The bottom line
The Northwestern study re-affirms the idea that living in a sanitized environment from birth onward probably isn’t the best strategy. As much as it’s debatable to what degree CRP plays a role in cardiovascular disease--whether it’s the cause or effect—there’s no question that chronic low-grade inflammation isn’t good for the body.
Berkeley Wellness Letter. (January 2008). Is Inflammation the Root of All Disease? Retrieved from http://www.wellnessletter.com/ucberkeley/feature/inflammation/#
Medical News Today. (02 June, 2012). Understanding the Links between Inflammation and Chronic Disease. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/246067.php
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Assessing Cardiovascular Risk with C-Reactive Protein. Retrieved from http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/heart_vascular_institute/clinical_services/womens_cardiovascular_health_center/patient_information/health_topics/c_reactive_protein.html